New 24/7 hotline hopes to reach Wisconsin farmers struggling with mental health

Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 10:55 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A new 24/7 counseling hotline hopes to relieve Wisconsin farmers, under added pressure from effects of COVID-19.

888-901-2558 is a free, confidential service by the Farm Center at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

The hotline launched in July-- as part of a pilot program-- is funded by the state biennial budget. It connects farmers with licensed mental health professionals contracted by the department.

“We’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Jayne Krull, the director of the Farm Center. She explained some of the normal stressors of the industry, including unpredictable weather and fluctuating milk prices.

NBC15 previously reported that in 2018, the Farm Center received 2,300 calls into the general help line, on topics like health insurance and financial assistance. The Farm Center often guides callers to its Counseling Voucher Program, which gives three vouchers to hour-long, in-person help sessions.

The all-day counseling hotline arrived during a time when a pandemic caused “extra stresses,” according to Krull. Dairy farmers have reported dumping their milk while some meat-packing plants shut down and put pressure on supply chains.

With added uncertainty, Krull explained that the number of daily inquiries into the general help line increased 200 to 300 percent in the last few months.

Jeffrey Ditzenberger, who described himself as a life-long farmer, said that his community is “used to dealing with a lot of extra stress at the most inopportune times.”

He continued, COVID-19 has heightened stress levels. “Sometimes we’d see price of beef go down slowly or you see the price of milk go down slowly. Now [with coronavirus] it was overnight that this kind of stuff happening. No light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ditzenberger saw the hotline as “a great idea.”

He said, “If you’re a farmer who, one, can’t get off the farm, [and] two, doesn’t have the financial resources or the insurance to cover mental health therapy, now you’ve got an avenue. Now you’ve got someone to talk to, that’s going to understand.”

Ditzenberger shared his own experiences with bipolar disorder and depression, as well as an attempt at taking his own life. Today, he is a mental health advocate, who drives a truck with the National Suicide Hotline printed on the back.

He said that mental health is a difficult topic for the farming community. One reason, he explained, was that farmers use a language of their own.

According to the Farm Center’s director, the hotline counselors have training and experience in Wisconsin’s “state-specfiic challenges,” including those of the dairy industry. “We do feel like they have the experience,” she said. “They’ve had time to prepare.”

“I think it will change the climate,” Ditzenberger said, on the opportunity to bring counseling to wherever farmers may be.

The 24/7 Farmer Counseling Hotline is 888-901-2558.

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